What may be the best-kept secret on campus? The University of Michigan runs a farm.
The Campus Farm began in 2012 on a small plot of land near the Project Grow garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens on Dixboro Road.
While plants began growing that year, the idea for the farm first took root in the late 1990s, when several faculty members introduced a course in sustainable agriculture, says Bob Grese, director of Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, and Theodore Roosevelt Professor of Ecosystem Management and professor of natural resources.
Not long after that, students and faculty began asking for places on campus where food gardens could be located.
The campus gardening trend picked up steam with the formation of the student gardening group Cultivating Community in 2004. This collaborative project by U-M students, faculty and staff, community members, and Matthaei-Nichols to grow vegetables and herbs on campus made possible a demonstration food garden at the Ginsberg Center, followed by a student proposal to create a campus farm in 2011.
“The students approached me about locating it at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens site and submitted a proposal to the newly created Planet Blue Student Initiative Fund,” Grese says. The idea became a reality when Planet Blue provided the nascent farm with $42,000 of seed funding.
New managers bring continuity
The campus farm coincided with other food-related initiatives at U-M, says Grese. This included new faculty as part of the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, the creation of an undergraduate minor and a graduate certificate program in Sustainable Food Systems, more student organizations devoted to sustainable food, and the creation of the Sustainable Food Program.
With all of this energy and commitment, Grese says, “the Campus Farm has become a centerpiece for Matthaei-Nichols of our commitment to environmental sustainability and to our desire to engage students and classes in hands-on learning.”
Between 30 and 50 students volunteer at the farm in any given week, and 10-15 faculty members and 20-30 Matthaei-Nichols staff members are involved with the farm in some way.
In the fall 2016, Jeremy Moghtader and Alex Bryan were brought on board as farm manager and Sustainable Food Program manager, respectively, to help nurture longer-term relationships with everything from potential markets for the farm’s produce to faculty teaching courses related to sustainable agriculture, Grese says.
“My wish list,” Moghtader says, “is to engage openly with people and hear what they have to say. … I also see the farm as a nexus of coursework and thriving learning opportunities for faculty and students.”
Bryan’s position falls under U-M Dining, and is designed to help coordinate the many student groups on campus that are linked to food-related programs.
“The dining connection is related to student life,” he says.
The university’s goal is to incorporate Campus Farm-grown food into the U-M dining halls by this fall. Currently, farm items are sold in season at M Farmer’s Markets and at Argus Farm Stop.
Early on, students and faculty recognized the long-term need for a farm manager. And within just a few years of having the farm at Matthaei that need became even more pressing.
“We hope that with a farm manager in place we’ll be better able to focus the farm efforts and provide greater stability in farm operations from year to year,” says Grese. “While some of our staff had direct farming experience, they didn’t have the time or perhaps the right expertise to answer the kinds of questions and challenges we encountered.”
New trend, old roots
If the notion of a farm on campus feels like a new idea, it’s not. Arguably the oldest campus farm in the country started at Berea College in Kentucky in 1871. Back then the majority of U.S. jobs were in agriculture, so having a campus with a farm made sense.
The timing is perfect for new campus farms. There’s a food revolution across the land, one that opens up opportunities for young farmers, note Laura Sayre and Sean Clark note in their book “Fields of Learning: The Student Farm Movement in North America.” The revolution is driven by concerns about the links between food production and the environment, human health, food safety and food justice.
In the 12 years that Moghtader worked as the director of Michigan State University’s organic farm, he said, “the perspective on food has undergone an extreme expansion. People want to consume food that’s minimally processed, whether it’s a niche brand or on a grocery store shelf.”
Students on campuses everywhere are plugging into a well of interest in the environment, equality, and issues of justice surrounding food.
“It’s exciting to see the intellectual engagement around food,” Moghtader says. “The Campus Farm stands as the nexus of these hopes and dreams.”
“We face complex challenges for transforming food systems toward environmental sustainability and social justice,” says Jennifer Blesh, assistant professor of natural resources and environment and a member of the farm manager search committee. New approaches and a new generation of scholars and practitioners are needed who can collaborate in an interdisciplinary way.
“To help students develop these competencies and skills, we need to increase opportunities for engaged and experiential learning about agriculture and all aspects of the food system,” she says.